Home has been a fluctuating term to Derrick Willies in recent years.
Three months into his current settlement with Rock Island, Willies called Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday morning and declared he wanted to make Iowa City his collegiate home.
A verbal commitment to the Hawkeyes just four days after Friday’s daylong visit, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior wide receiver felt comfortable in choosing Iowa over offers from Iowa State, Northern Illinois, Illinois State and Eastern Illinois.
“I knew it was right,” said Willies, who is a three-star prospect, according to Rivals.com. “They really made me feel welcome. It was about a 10-hour visit, and they really wanted me there.”
Willies joins Indianapolis defensive end David Kenney as the first Class of 2013 commits to the Hawkeyes.
Willies, who visited Wisconsin and heard from Nebraska, becomes Iowa’s first recruit from Rock Island since tight end Austin Wheatley in the late 1990s. Fullback Eddie Williams found his way to Iowa City as a walk-on via McKendree College seven years ago after graduating from Rock Island.
It’s been a rocky road to Rocky for Willies, who grew up in California and spent his last three falls at Burlington. Before the winter of his freshman year, Willies moved back west with his mom, competing in basketball and track at Centennial High School in Las Vegas.
He returned to Burlington a few months later, living with his aunt and playing football for the Grayhounds his sophomore and junior years. He led the Mississippi Athletic Conference last fall with 57 receptions and 934 yards, adding seven touchdowns for a 2-7 team and also was an all-state selection.
Then a family fallout ensued, enticing Willies to look elsewhere for school and athletics. His Burlington track coach connected him with his nephew, Nick Gieselman, a Rock Island native.
Willies moved in with Gieselman, and according to Willies the school transfer initially was stalled. He enrolled at Rock Island the third week of January, a few days after the Rocks had hired Lake Zurich’s Bryan Stortz as their new football coach, replacing the retiring Vic Boblett.
Once he was settled into school, Illinois High School Association rules stipulated he be living with an official court-ordered legal guardian in order to participate in athletics.
His mom went to court and approved Gieselman as his guardian, permitting Willies to begin competition with the Rocks’ track and field squad. A week after Willies moved in, Gieselman and his fiancée, Cassie Davis, had a baby boy.
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“I feel like I’m a part of their family,” Willies said of Gieselman and Davis. “They’ve really made me feel welcome, and they help me with everything I need.”
Once he departed Burlington, Willies’ recruitment could have come unhinged since Rock Island is in its own transition with a coaching staff that won’t be in place until the summer. So Boblett offered his help to Willies, making calls to more than a dozen colleges in the Big Ten and Mid-American conferences.
“I waited about a month and a half to make an assessment, and it was real apparent to me this kid’s the whole deal,” Boblett said. “That was a situation ripe for a young man to slip through the cracks in his recruitment, and we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.”
Stortz indicated Tuesday, without the benefit of working out his entire 2012 squad, there’s a decent chance Willies could suit up at free safety or corner this fall, making him a two-way player.
“It makes the program even stronger when you’ve got a kid like Derrick who can be on the field as much as possible,” Stortz said.
Willies can’t officially sign with the Hawkeyes until Feb. 6, 2013.
“When you make that decision this early, all the weight’s off your shoulders of people asking you, where are you going?” Stortz said. “Now he can focus on his education and playing football.”